Squash are autumn gems -- and good eating, too


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They're one of fall's most visual offerings, foods so colorful you make them the centerpiece on your Thanksgiving table. Or maybe you like to pile these jewel-toned veggies on the stoop next to the jack-o'-lanterns come Halloween.

What you really should be doing is eating them, those brightly striped, sometimes weirdly shaped, more often than not hard-as-a-rock autumn gems known as winter squashes.

I came late to the squash party. For much of my cooking life, I relegated this quintessential fall offering to the "no way, no how" list of ingredients. I'm bad enough with a chef's knife, let alone a cleaver (I once managed to nearly take off a fingertip while slicing cake), so trying to peel and then whack a Hubbard or acorn squash into cookable pieces seemed a guaranteed trip to the ER.

Better to limit my family's squash-eating to the easy summer varieties such as zucchini and yellow crookneck, which are a snap to slice and dice into a stir-fry or gratin or grate into a chocolate cake.

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My kids, I'm sad to say, didn't put up much of an argument. While all happily gobbled (pureed) squash as babies, by the time they were in elementary school none would have touched butternut squash with a 10-foot pole, let alone a fork. Then two years ago, a copy of "Martha Stewart's Dinner at Home" landed on my desk.

She's a crafty one, that Martha, practically Double Dog-daring us into rethinking everything we thought about squash with one simple, delicious-sounding recipe. Today, one of my daughter Catherine's favorite fall dishes is her "Gratineed Baked Squash Halves," or acorn squash baked with garlic-and-sage-infused cream and then topped with melted Gruyere. She starts asking for it about the time school starts.

Generally, summer squashes are picked young, when the skin is still soft and the fruit is small, while winter squashes are allowed to mature. That's why many varieties, including acorn and buttercup, have such hard, thick skin. But not all are daunting to work with: the only thing that stands between you and the sweet orange flesh of the oblong-shaped delicata squash, for instance, is a vegetable peeler, or a half hour in a hot oven. (Roasted, the skin is quite tender.)

Small and sweet sugar (pie) pumpkins -- yep, they're actually a type of squash -- also are extremely easy to prepare for cooking; just wash, cut in half, remove the stem and scrape out the seeds and fibers. Then, they can be roasted, steamed, grilled, boiled, microwaved, grated or stuffed in any way you can imagine.

What I'm learning, with the help of several new cookbooks, is that the winter squash is well worth exploring. You can't beat its versatility. Appetizers, soups, stews, side dishes, breads and muffins, vegetarian entrees, desserts -- there's a way to sneak squash into virtually any meal. Creative types even can use the shell as a serving bowl for soups and stews. And don't forget about the seeds, which can be toasted for a snack or garnish.

Happily, the weather's been kind in Western Pennsylvania, so there's a wide variety of cooking pumpkins and squashes available at your local grocery store and farmers market. Among the offerings at Janoski's in Clinton, for example, are acorn, butternut, spaghetti and delicato squashes; Schramm Farms in Penn, Westmoreland County, has all that plus those thick and bumpy Hubbard squashes, which, once you hack your way to their dense yellow-orange flesh, prove mighty tasty. At Farmers Market Co-op of East Liberty, Brian Greenawalt of Greenawalt Farm also has green and orange kabocha (also known as Japanese pumpkin), which has an exceptionally sweet flavor.

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Canned pumpkin has gotten expensive enough (a 15-ounce can costs about $2.50 at Giant Eagle) that a growing number of people are trying to make their own from scratch from sugar sweets, said Mary Pat, a part-time "vegetable pusher" at Schramm's, which sells them for 45 cents a pound. (In general, 1 pound fresh winter squash equals 2 cups peeled and cooked pumpkin.)

She said, "So many are buying for the first time."


Roasted Spaghetti Squash Noodles

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  • 3 cardamom pods
  • 1/2 teaspoon whole allspice berries
  • 3 star anise
  • 1 large Granny Smith apple, cored and halved
  • Juice of 1 lemon
  • 1 spaghetti squash (about 2 pounds), cut in half lengthwise, seeds and pulp removed
  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
  • 2 tablespoons honey
  • 2 tablespoons packed golden brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/2 cup apple cider (optional)

Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 300 degrees.

Place cardamom, allspice and star anise in a small skillet over medium-low heat; toast spices, shaking the pan often, until fragrant, about 4 minutes. Remove from heat and grind in a spice grinder; set aside.

In a small bowl, toss apple with lemon juice and set aside.

Place squash on a rimmed baking sheet or casserole dish skin-side down; brush flesh of squash with butter and honey; evenly sprinkle ground spices, sugar, salt and pepper over the top. Place on apple half with juices into the cavity of each squash; add apple cider to inside of cavity, if desired.

Bake, basting occasionally, until squash is tender and offers no resistance when pierced with a paring knife, 11/2 to 2 hours. Remove from oven; discard apple and let cool for 10 minutes. Using a fork, scrape cooked squash into a medium bowl and toss to separate the strands. Serve warm.

Makes 4 servings.

-- "Holiday Dinners with Bradley Ogden" by Bradley Ogden with Lydia Scott (Running Press, 2011, $30)



Pumpkin Old-Fashioned Doughnuts

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These were so much easier than I anticipated, and yummy! Don't let the oil get too hot and pay attention to flip times, or you'll end up burning the second and third batches.

-- Getchen McKay

For doughnuts
  • 3 cups cake or soft wheat flour, plus more for rolling and cutting
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 2 teaspoons pumpkin pie spice
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 2 tablespoons shortening
  • 2 large egg yolks
  • 2/3 cup sour cream
  • 1/2 cup canned pumpkin
  • Canola oil, for frying
For glaze
  • 4 1/2 cups confectioners' sugar
  • 2 teaspoons light corn syrup
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice
  • 1/4 cup canned pumpkin
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/4 cup hot water

To make doughnuts: Sift flour, baking powder, salt, nutmeg and pumpkin pie spice together into a bowl and set aside.

In a stand mixer fitted with a paddle, mix sugar and shortening for 1 minute on low speed, until sandy. Add egg yolks, then mix for 1 more minute on medium speed, scraping the sides of bowl with a rubber spatula, until mixture is light colored and thick.

Add dry ingredients to wet ingredients in 3 separate additions, alternating with sour cream and pumpkin, mixing until just combined on low speed and scraping the sides of the bowl each time. The dough will be sticky.

Transfer dough to a clean bowl and refrigerate, covered with plastic wrap, for 45 minutes or up to 24 hours.

Meanwhile, make glaze by placing confectioners' sugar, corn syrup, salt, pumpkin pie spice, pumpkin and vanilla in the work bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle. With machine on medium speed, add hot water in a slow, steady stream, and blend until all of the sugar has been incorporated, scraping the bowl a few times is necessary. Set aside.

Using a candy thermometer to measure, heat oil (at least 2 inches deep) in a large pot or high-sided frying pan to 325 degrees. Roll out chilled dough on a floured counter or cutting board to 1/2-inch thick, flouring the top of the dough and rolling pin as necessary to prevent sticking. Cut into as many doughnuts and holes as possible, dipping the cutter into flour before each cut. Fold and gently reroll dough to make extra holes and cut again.

Shake excess flour off doughnuts before carefully adding them to the hot oil a few at a time, taking care not to crowd them. Once doughnuts float, fry to 15 seconds, then gently flip them. Fry for 75 to 90 seconds, until golden brown and cracked, then flip and fry the first side again for 60 to 75 seconds. Transfer to a rack set over paper towels.

While doughnuts are still quite hot, dip the side with the deepest cracks on each into the warm glaze. Let dry on cooling racks, glazed side up, for about 15 minutes.

Makes 1 dozen doughnuts and holes.

-- "Hand-Forged Doughnuts: Secrets and Recipes for the Home Baker" by Mark and Michael Klebeck with Jess Thomson (Chronicle, 2011, $16.95)



Witch's Pumpkin Brew Stew

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  • 2 medium yellow onions
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1/8 teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • 1 tablespoon curry powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
  • 3 15-ounce cans pumpkin, or 6 cups mashed cooked fresh pumpkin
  • 5 cups vegetable broth
  • 2 15-ounce cans unsweetened coconut milk
  • Up to 1/4 cup maple syrup
  • Sea salt
  • Pinch cayenne pepper
  • 1/2 cup toasted pumpkin seeds

In a large saucepan over medium heat, saute the onions and garlic in the olive oil for about 5 minutes. Add red pepper flakes, curry and coriander to pan, and saute for about 5 more minutes; be sure spices are well coated with the hot oil. Add pumpkin and vegetable broth. Stir well and bring soup to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 15 minutes.

Transfer soup, in batches, to a blender or food processor and blend until smooth. Return soup to the saucepan. On low heat, add coconut milk and maple syrup. Adjust seasonings, adding salt and cayenne to taste.

Garnish each bowl of soup with a sprinkle of pumpkin seeds.

Serves a crowd.

-- "Gluten-Free and Vegan Holidays" by Jennifer Katzinger (Sasquatch, Oct. 2011, $24.95)



Caramelized Pumpkin 'Bruschetta'

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This easy appetizer was served at Pittsburgh Public Market's Green Gathering workshop in September. Also terrific as a side dish.

  • 1/4 ounce pancetta or bacon, chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • 2 cups peeled and cubed pumpkin
  • 1/4 teaspoons chile pepper flakes
  • 1/4 cup lemon juice
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 2 teaspoons brown sugar
  • Sage leaves
  • Baguette

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Place pancetta, garlic, pumpkin, chile flakes and brown sugar in bowl, toss to coat. Place in baking dish and bake 30 to 35 minutes, or until pumpkin is browned. While the pumpkin mixture is still warm fold in sage leaves and allow to wilt. Place the lemon juice and olive oil in a bowl and whisk.

Toss pumpkin mixture with the dressing. Place a spoonful of the pumpkin on a slice of toasted baguette.

Serves 8 to 10.

-- Kevin Costa, executive chef, Crested Duck



Chicken-Pumpkin Tacos

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I wasn't sure there'd be enough liquid to cook the chicken in this simple taco dish, but once the pumpkin cooked down, the meat ended up deliciously tender. Use a very large pan or you may have to transfer the ingredients mid-recipe -- I ended up dumping everything into a Dutch oven. The recipe says it makes 6 tacos, but we had enough filling for at least 10. I ate the warmed-up leftovers with a spoon. -- Gretchen McKay

  • 1 tablespoon canola oil
  • 1 onion, thinly sliced
  • 2 red peppers, seeded and diced
  • 1 1/2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breast halves (I used strips)
  • 1 pound fresh pumpkin, seeds and fibers removed, peeled and diced (2 cups)
  • 1/4 cup canned unsweetened pumpkin
  • 1/2 cup canned tomatoes and juice
  • 2 teaspoons chili powder
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • Dash of hot sauce
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon lime juice
  • 1 tablespoon minced cilantro
  • 6 flour tortillas, 8 inches each, or crisp corn taco shells
  • 1/2 cup plain nonfat yogurt
  • 1/4 cup sour cream
  • 1 1/2 cups grated cheddar or Monterey Jack cheese
  • 1 ripe avocado, peeled and chopped
  • 3 cups shredded lettuce
  • 1 1/2 cups salsa

Heat oil in a large skillet or saute pan over medium-high heat. Add onion and cook for 3 minutes. Add peppers and chicken and cook for another 3 minutes. Stir in fresh and canned pumpkin, tomatoes, chili powder, cumin, hot sauce and salt. Cover, reduce heat and summer until chicken is tender and no longer pink, the pumpkin is easily pierced with a fork and sauce thickens, about 10 to 15 minutes. When chicken is cool enough to handle, shred it and return to pan. Stir in lime juice and cilantro and let the mixture sit while you heat the tacos.

On a griddle or skillet, over medium heat, warm tortillas for 1 minute on each side. Place 1 on each of 6 plates and divide filling among them. Combine yogurt and sour cream in a small bowl. Top each taco with yogurt mix, cheese, avocado, lettuce and salsa. Fold in half as you eat them.

Makes 6 generous tacos.

-- "Pumpkin: A Super Food for All 12 Months of the Year" by DeeDee Stovel (Storey, $12.95)



Gnudi di zucca e l'olio nuove (Butternut squash Gnudi with fresh olive oil)

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  • 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil, preferably l'olio nuovo, divided
  • 1 pound butternut squash, peeled, seeded and cut into small cubes
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 1 pound fresh ricotta cheese
  • 1 1/4 cups freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, plus extra for sprinkling
  • 1 egg
  • 1/2 cup flour, divided

Heat half the olive oil in a saucepan on medium heat. Add butternut squash and salt and pepper, and saute until squash is fork-tender. (If you boil the squash, it will retain too much water.) When squash is fork-tender, transfer it to a big mixing bowl. With the back of a fork, work it until it's even mashed.

Add ricotta cheese, 1 cup of Parmigiano, egg and about 1/3 of the flour, and mix everything together. Keep adding flour, a little at a time, until everything is mixed thoroughly and forms a dough.

With your hand, scoop a bit of the mixture and roll it into a ball about the size of a golf ball. Keep going until you've used up all the dough.

Place gnudi balls in a pot of boiling salted water for about 1 minutes or unitl they float to the surface. Drain and plate.

Drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with remaining Parmigiano.

Serves 4 to 6.

-- "Made in Italy" by David Rocco (Clarkson Potter, Oct. 2011, $35)



Miguelito's pumpkin and chicken puree

Why should grownups, or maybe just people with teeth, have all the fun when it comes to pumpkin? This Cuban baby food is perfect for children ages 6 months and older.

  • 1 pound pumpkin flesh, diced
  • 1 boneless, skinless chicken breast, steamed and cubed
  • 2 teaspoons butter or cream cheese
  • 1/2 cup vegetable or chicken broth

In a large heavy saucepan, cover pumpkin pieces with 6 cups cold water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-high, and continue cooking until pumpkin is very tender (about 20 minutes). Do not add salt or any seasonings. Drain and transfer to a food processor.

Add chicken pieces and butter, and process until very smooth. If desired and your child is old enough, add broth gradually as your process to get the right consistency.

Serve immediately, making sure it is not too hot for the baby, or freeze (in ice cube trays) for future use.

Makes 4 servings.

-- "The Cuban Kitchen" by Raquel Rabade Roque" (Knopf, 2011, $20)


Gretchen McKay : gmckay@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1419.


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